Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-806-2 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-61-1 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi accomplished 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Originally published as monochrome strip Le Mystère De L’Avion Gris (The Mystery of the Grey Plane) from April 15th to November 16th 1937, the stirring saga was rerun in French Catholic newspaper Coeurs Vallaint from April 17th 1938. Its doom-laden atmosphere of espionage, criminality and darkly gathering storms settling upon the Continent clearly caught the public imagination…

Later that year Éditions Casterman released the entire epic as L’Île noire in a hardback volume that Hergé hated. It was eventually re-released in 1943, reformatted, extensively redrawn and in full colour and was greeted with rapturous success and acclaim.

Further revisions came after Tintin crossed the channel into British bookstores. The Black Island required a number of alterations to suit British publisher Methuen, leading to Herge’s assistant Bob De Moor travelling to England in 1961 for an extensive and extremely productive fact-finding mission which resulted in a new revised and updated edition that appeared not only here but was again serialised in Europe.

One evening as Tintin and Snowy are enjoying a walk in the country, a small plane experiences engine trouble and ditches in a field. When the helpful reporter offers assistance, he is shot…

Visited in hospital by bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson, the patient discovers they’re off to England to investigate the crash of an unregistered plane. Putting the meagre facts together Tintin discharges himself, and with Snowy in tow, catches the boat-train to Dover.

The young gallant is utterly unaware that he’s been targeted by sinister figures. Before journey’s end they have framed him for an assault and had him arrested. All too soon the wonder boy has escaped and is hounded across the countryside as a fugitive.

Despite the frantic pursuit, he makes it safely to England, having temporarily eluded the authorities, but is still being pursued by the murderous thugs who set him up…

He is eventually captured by the gangsters – actually German spies – and uncovers a forgery plot that circuitously leads him to the wilds of Scotland and a (visually stunning) “haunted” castle on an island in a Loch.

Undaunted, the bonny boy reporter goes undercover to investigate and discovers the gang’s base. He also finds out to his peril that the old place is guarded by a monstrous ape…

And that’s when the action really takes off…

This superb adventure, powerfully reminiscent of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, guarantees the cherished notion that, as always, virtue, daring and a huge helping of comedic good luck inevitably leads to a spectacular and thrilling denouement…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, now is the time series to rectify that sorry situation.

The Black Island: artwork © 1956, 1984 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1966 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central Book 1: In the Line of Duty


By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1923-9 (HB)                    978-1-4012-2037-2 (TPB)

One of the great joys of long-lasting, legendary comics characters is their potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case was Gotham Central, wherein contemporary television sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue in the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it did to the baroque continuity of Batman, the series mixed gritty, authentic police action with a soft-underbelly peek at what the merely mortal guardians and peacekeepers had to put up with in a world of psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This compilation – available in hardback, soft cover and eBook editions – collects Gotham Central #1-10 (spanning February to October 2003), lovingly crafted by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with sublimely understated illustration from Michael Lark and comes with an erudite and informative Introduction on ‘The Mean Streets of Gotham’ by celebrated crime author Lawrence Block.

Brubaker & Rucka co-wrote the eponymous two-part premier tale ‘In the Line of Duty’ wherein a desperate child-kidnap investigation by detectives Marcus Driver and Charlie Fields of ex-Commissioner Gordon’s hand-picked Major Crimes Unit leads them all unawares to the temporary hideout of murderous superfreak Mr Freeze.

The cold-hearted killer horrifically eliminates Charlie but sadistically leaves Driver injured and alive… as an object lesson.

The GCPD have a strange relationship with the Dark Knight. They all know he’s out there, but the official line is that he’s an urban myth and the Administration refuses to acknowledge his existence.

Thus, a civilian is employed to turn on the bat-signal on the roof when crises occur and the public are told the eerie light is simply used to keep the cowardly, superstitious underworld cowed…

In such circumstances all real cops are loath to ask for The Bat’s help and Driver and his grieving, angry colleagues pull out all the stops to find and capture Freeze before the masked vigilante insultingly finishes their job for them.

However, as night falls and the flash-frozen body count rises, Marcus deduces what Freeze is planning and has no choice but to ask new Police Commissioner Akins to suspend his embargo and call in the whacko expert before hundreds more die…

From an era when comicbook noir was enjoying a superb renaissance, this classic take on the theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is a masterpiece of edgy and fast-paced tension whilst simultaneously smoothly and memorably introducing a large cast of splendidly realised new and very individual players…

Brubaker solo-scripts the second story as ‘Motive’ finds the now fit-for-duty Driver and his temporary partner Romy Chandler using solid police work to solve the outstanding kidnap case, all the while under the gun since arson villain The Firebug is dancing on the horizon, burning down Gotham one building at a time.

Fourteen-year old babysitter Bonnie Lewis vanished while walking home from her yuppie client’s house, and a subsequent ransom demand later proved to be a fake. Now, after her body is found, Driver and Chandler meticulously re-examine the facts and discover that almost everybody involved has been lying…

As they methodically sift evidence, alibis and possible motives, they begin to realise that even this tragically normal crime has its roots in both common greed and the gaudy madness of the city’s abundant metahuman menaces…

The gripping procedural drama then segues back to the city’s aristocracy of maniacs as Greg Rucka scripts ‘Half a Life’ with focus switching to Renee Montoya: a solid cop with too many secrets.

After her former partner Harvey Bullock was fired with extreme prejudice, tongues started wagging, but now an old case threatens to destroy her career and end her life…

When arresting rapist Marty Lipari, he tried to stab her, and Montoya forcefully subdued him. Now her morning is ruined after the skel sues her for ten million dollars in damages.

It only gets worse when she and partner Crispus Allen get a bogus case dumped on them by the corrupt, lazy meatheads in Robbery Division. However, the capper is dinner with her traditional, devout Catholic parents who still want her to settle down and have kids…

Her life begins to truly unravel when a photo of her kissing another woman does the rounds of colleagues, friends and family. Not all her fellow cops are homophobic bigots: but just enough are. That’s why she kept her life private for years.

Now, apparently outed by Lipari’s hired gumshoe Brian Selker, she is targeted by Internal Affairs when first the PI and then Lipari himself are found shot to death.

With her lover Darla threatened, her gun identified as the murder weapon and a huge quantity of illicit drugs found in her apartment, Renee is soon on her way to jail – another bad egg just like Bullock…

Nobody in MCU thinks she’s guilty but the evidence is overwhelming, and the crisis comes when en route she’s busted out by masked men and taken to the hidden citadel of one of Batman’s most nightmarish nemeses…

Utterly alone, in the unfriendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth, Montoya has to deal alone with a crazed maniac who’s destroyed her life just so he can be with her forever.

As a Major Crimes detective she’s seen how bad The Bat’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter or witness, and it’s not just her life at stake…

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds, irrespective of the nature of evil in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story of 2003.

Sadly not included in this volume are the two earlier tales from Renee’s past (you might want to track down Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka & Jason Pearson & Cam Smith and Detective Comics#747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado & Steve Mitchell) which explained that oblique connection to her obsessive suitor. You can find them in the original 2005 trade paperback Gotham Central: Half a Life. and hopefully future editions will restore them to this volume too.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo all play well under Michael Lark’s deft subtle artwork, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old-fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, all playing out with compulsive veracity in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

This smart cop thriller set on the edge of hell is a stunning study in genre-crossing storytelling, and this edition includes a full cover gallery by Lark as well as a fulsome section of designs and character sketches in bonus feature ‘Staffing the GCPD’.

Dark, suspenseful and so very addictive, this is a book no bat-freak or crime buff can afford to miss.
© 2004, 2005, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tintin and the Lake of Sharks – A TINTIN FILM BOOK


By Greg & various, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-822-2 (HB)                    978-1-4052-0634-1 (PB)

Although this tale is not strictly canonical, fans of Hergé’s intrepid boy reporter and his tragically now completed series of adventures can always console themselves with this high-quality graphic adaptation of the animated feature-film Tintin et la Lac aux Requins.

The motion picture was originally released in 1972 and – although not directly created by Hergé who only enjoyed a supervisory role – remains a classy piece of rousing fiction directed by publisher Raymond LeBlanc and written by European mega-star Michel Regnier.

As “Greg”, he is best remembered now for his comedic anti-hero Achille Talon (translated into English both in animated cartoons and comic albums as Walter Melon), Luc Orient, Bruno Brazil, Zig et Puce and memorable runs as scripter and/or editor on Spirou and Fantasio, Clifton and many more.

Although lacking the smartly satirical edge of Hergé’s efforts, comedy, action and slapstick are still well represented in this hectic yarn which transforms animation stills into sequential narrative, albeit with admittedly mixed results.

Purists who love the artist’s landmark and legendary Ligne Claire style will be deterred that the designs are laid over and across fully-rendered, moulded and painted backgrounds, but although the result is initially jarring, the story does swiftly carry the reader beyond such quibbles.

Ligne Claire – or the Democracy of Lines as it is sometimes called (in case you were wondering) – is the term given to the dramatically simplified drawing style developed by Hergé which has influenced so very many creators. With it sleek, clean lines of equal strength, thickness and prominence are used to impart an almost diagrammatic value to subjects.

This is in contrast to styles which might emphasise foreground or background with varying line-weights. Line-shading, hatching, feathering and the use of shadows are also ignored or down-played. It’s the perfect base for bold. simple colour and imparts an impressive solidity and immediacy to pictures.

When combined with a stripped-down but accurate character or object design, the effect of hyper or even meta-reality is astoundingly convincing. The term was first used by creator, fan and devotee Joost Swarte in the late 1970s. Here Endeth the Lesson…

In The Lake of Sharks a series of art and gem robberies coincide with a trip by Tintin, Captain Haddock and the detectives Thompson and Thomson to visit Professor Calculus. The savant is sequestered at a villa on the shores of Lake Pollishoff; a huge body of water in the mountains of Syldavia, artificially created by building a dam and flooding a village.

The locals believe the area is haunted. And no sooner do our picaresque cast arrive than attempts to kill them begin!

Calculus is in seclusion to perfect his latest invention – a 3-D duplicating machine – but a series of strange events leads Tintin to believe that sinister forces have targeted the eccentric genius once again.

Spies, intruders and weird occurrences seem to be a daily threat at the Villa Sprog! Our heroes are not easily cowed, however, and with the help of two peasant children, Niko and Nushka (and their dog Gustav) a dastardly plot by the heroes’ greatest enemy is revealed. This mastermind now calls himself King Shark

This magical, fast-paced romp does the canonical episodes proud and can hold its head high even amidst the incredible legacy of one of the true Masters of the Comic Strip. And besides, your collection is incomplete without it…
Artwork © 1955 Editions Casterman, Paris& Tournai. © renewed 1983 Egmont UK Limited. Text © 1971 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Chandler


By Steranko (Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc/Pyramid Books)
ISBN: 978-0-515-04241-2 (Pyramid Books)

Steranko is an artist with many strings to his bow. Whether as publisher, typographer, graphic designer, artist, storyteller, historian, or musical performer he has always excelled.

As a magician and escapologist he found celebrity, inspiring new friend Jack Kirby to create Super Escape Artist Mister Miracle, but it’s as a comics creator that the man of many talents has most memorably succeeded.

At the peak of Marvel’s first creative flowering he revolutionised the telling of graphic stories with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. His retro-revisionist take on Captain America is reverently remembered – as is his brief meddling with mutant outriders The X-Men.

Decades after his experimental forays in Marvel’s horror and romance titles, the results are remembered – if not actually in print anywhere – as high-points in style and cinematic design.

Steranko left Marvel to pursue his other interests and began publication of pop culture mainstay Mediascene Prevue, only rarely returning to the comic medium. If you’ve never seen his strip work you’ll know him by his film production concept art for blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In the mid-1970s he linked up with comics Svengali Byron Preiss to create this fabulous experimental precursor of the graphic novel: a dynamic and vivid tribute to the hard-boiled detective and film noir genres, and something which perhaps not altogether to the tastes of fans at the time is certainly now very much in the bailiwick of contemporary comics consumers.

Alternatively entitled FICTION ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 3 in its pocket digest sized paperback iteration (as well as proper full-sized graphic novel Chandler: Red Tide), it still packs a potent visual and narrative punch.

Chandler is a private eye, in the iconic myth-country of 1940’s New York City. One night a desperate man comes looking for someone to track down his inescapable killer.

Bramson Todd witnessed a mob hit and has somehow been poisoned because of it. With seventy-two hours to live, the walking corpse wants proactive revenge, and as well as a vast amount of money, he offers Chandler the chance to save the other three witnesses from the same fate or worse…

The familiar iconography of the seedy, noble gumshoe is augmented by two-fisted action, flying bullets, sundry thugs and scoundrels, memorable, glamorous women and a ticking clock, all working to make in this loving and effective pastiche a minor masterpiece…

Back then, however, a major stumbling block for many readers was the unconventional format of the book.

Each folio is divided into two columns – in the manner of the classic pulp prose page layouts – with each column comprising an illustration above a block of accompanying text.

Despite Steranko’s superb draughtsmanship and design skill (some spreads form extended visual continuities with four single pictures becoming one large illustration), there is an element of separation between prose and picture that can take a little adapting to. You should try. It’s worth it.

This is still a powerful tale, well told and worth any extra effort necessary to enjoy it. Another contender for immediate reissue, I think…
© 1976 Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc.
The character Chandler © 1976 James Steranko.

Altered Boys volume 1: The Book of Billy


By Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak, Jon C. Scheide, Robert Rath & various (Shinebox Press)
ISBN: 25274-0480-3

The eternally meandering demarcation line between justice and vengeance has been a favoured theme of drama since storytelling began and is never going to grow stale or overused.

Such tales are always about addressing fundamental universal wrongs which impact on our core values, but they generally come seasoned by topical outrages, such as this moody and compelling opening act in what reads to me like a movie or TV miniseries in the making.

Altered Boys is the brainchild of Hollywood insiders Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak & Jon C. Scheide, brought to vivid life by illustrator Robert Rath.

It tackles, with cathartic venom and a hunger for redress, one of society’s most vile and iniquitous scandals: the historical and ongoing betrayal and abuse of the innocent faithful by their spiritual – and moral – leaders.

With the current global backlash against religions that value their own wealth and reputations over the harm (some) priests inflict upon the most vulnerable of their charges, here’s an honest and understandable reaction, couched in the trappings of a cop drama and conspiracy thriller.

Once upon a time in Boston there were four boys. It was 1984 and Michael, Mark, Christian and Billy were just your average best friends with their entire lives ahead of them enjoying nothing but high hopes and bold expectations. They were also altar boys at the local Catholic church where the formidable Father Fitzgerald officiated…

Today, the long-separated pals are attending Billy’s funeral. It’s a fractious ill-tempered reunion and there’s plenty of guilt to go around about what happened to him – and them – back then. Even more over how he ended up…

Michael can’t let it go and, displaying an unnerving set of strategies and skills, tracks down Fitzgerald, easily penetrating many devious layers of obfuscation the Church provided when they quietly relocated the paedophilic monster.

Their reunion and confrontation is short and very final…

In the aftermath, Michael enjoys a quiet reconciliation breakfast with Mark and Christian before leaving town. He then has a slanging match with his own superiors and starts lying to his bosses…

In Washington DC, FBI Director Rivera has a visitor. The Cardinal has received a disturbing file he doesn’t want but needs to share. Catholic priests are dying.

Many are committing what doctrine and faith considers a mortal sin and taking their own lives whilst others are just being shot in their homes.

It might not be clear to the authorities what’s going on, but His Eminence knows what all these priests have in common…

What nobody yet realises is that it’s not just Catholics or even simply Christian clerics at risk. Something very methodical and efficient is excising deviant officiants of every faith: those who betray their flocks and predate on their congregations whilst relying on their superiors’ silence to safeguard them.

Now person or persons unknown are using the Churches’ own abominable cowardice in covering up scandals to mask an unswerving elimination of the unholy…

Moreover, Michael’s enigmatic bosses are slowly realising their top operative is also off the rails and ministering to his own agenda…

To Be Continued…

Sharing an edgy tone with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and elements of both Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil, this potent exploration of monsters and champions seeks to redefine notions of Good and Evil whilst telling a darkly gripping story of timeless appeal. It’s working so far…

On a personal note: Having been raised Catholic myself before rationality overwhelmed me, it’s an issue that has long personally aggrieved me and shamed every good and decent person I know (as it should everybody on Earth). It’s good to see mainstream adventure comics seriously addressing the issues in mature – if necessarily bombastic – manner. The second volume is in production as we speak and hopefully it won’t be long before we can see the investigation proceed in Altered Boys: The Book of Rebecca
© 2018 Shinebox Press.

Altered Boys: The Book of Billy is available digitally on Comixology and hard copies can be obtained via the website.

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel


By Eoin Colfer &Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano with colour by Paolo Lamanna (Puffin Books)
ISBN: 978-0-141-32296-4

In an age when the boundaries of good guys and bad guys are constantly blurred and redefined, it’s well to keep your options open. One admirable player for the other side (mostly) is the captivating Artemis Fowl II. A criminal mastermind, scion of Ireland’s greatest family of rogues and villains, he is probably the greatest intellect on the planet.

The wee lad inherited the family business when his father mysteriously vanished on a caper, a loss from which Artemis’ mother has never recovered.

This Machiavellian anti-hero is a teenager so smart that he has deduced that fairies and mystical creatures actually exist and thus spends this first book stealing their secrets to replenish the family’s depleted fortunes and fulfil his greatest heart’s desire…

His greatest ally is Butler, a manically loyal and extremely formidable hereditary retainer who is a master of physical violence…

The first of the eight novels (with four so far making the transition to sequential narrative whilst production of the Disney movie nears completion) is here adapted by the author and Andrew Donkin; illustrated in a kind of Euro-manga style that won’t suit everybody but which nevertheless perfectly captures the mood and energy of the original.

This lavish adventure is also interspersed with comprehensive and clever data-file pages (by Megan Noller Holt) to bring everybody up to full speed on this wild, wild world…

Fowl is utterly brilliant and totally ruthless. Once determining that the mythological realm of pixies, elves, ogres and the like are actually a highly advanced secret race predating humanity and now dwelling deep underground, he “obtains” and translates their Great Book and divines all their secrets of technology and magic.

Artemis has a plan for the greatest score of all time, and knows that he cannot be thwarted, but he has not reckoned on the wit, guts and determination of Holly Short, an elf who works for the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Force.

She is the only female LEPRecon operative allowed to work on the world’s surface and has had to prove herself every moment of every day…

Combining sinister mastery, exotic locales, daring adventure, spectacular high fantasy concepts and appallingly low puns and slapstick, this tale has translated extremely well to the comics medium (but that’s no reason not to read the books too, especially as they’re all available in paperback and digital formats), offering a clever plot and characters that are both engaging and grotesquely vulgar – and thus perfect fare for kids.

I especially admire the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggum, whose species’ biological self-defence mechanism consists of overwhelming, explosive flatulence…

Farting, fighting and fantasy are pretty much the perfect combination for kid’s fiction and boys especially will revel in the unrestrained power of the wicked lead character. This is a little gem from a fabulously imaginative creator and an unrelentingly rewarding publisher. Long may you all reign…
Text © 2007 Eoin Colfer. Illustrations © 2007 Giovanni Rigano. All rights reserved.

The Dick Tracy Casebook – Favorite Adventures 1931-1990


By Chester Gould, selected by Max Allan Collins and Dick Locher (St. Martins/Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-31204-461-9 (HB)                978-0-14014-568-7 (PB)

All things considered, comics have a pretty good track record on creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional characters on Earth (usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Tarzan) and in that list you’ll find Batman, Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin, Spider-Man, Garfield, and not so much now – but once upon a time – Dick Tracy.

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould was looking for strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters (like Al Capone who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers) he settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion.

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident and hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ power and charisma.

He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation. He took “Plainclothes Tracy” to legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali Captain Joseph Patterson, whose golden touch had blessed such strips as Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle, Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others.

Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson renamed the stern protagonist Dick Tracy and revised his love interest into steady girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s Chicago Tribune Syndicate and rapidly became a huge hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows.

Amidst the toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. If you’ve never seen the original legend in action this collection – still readily available and released to accompany the Warren Beatty movie in 1990 – is a great introduction.

Selected by Max Allen Collins and Dick Locher, who worked on the strip after Gould retired, it presents complete adventures from each decade of the strip’s existence to date, and gives a grand overview of the development from radical ultra-violent adventure to forensic Police Procedural through increasingly fantastical science fiction and finally back-to-basics cop thriller under Collins’ own script tenure.

From the 1930s comes the memorable and uncharacteristic ‘The Hotel Murders’ (9th March – 27th April, 1936) wherein the terrifyingly determined cop solves a genuine mystery with a sympathetic antagonist instead of the usual unmitigated, unrepentant outlaw.

Whodunits with clues, false trails and tests of wits were counterproductive in a slam-bang, daily strip with a large cast and soap-opera construction, but this necessarily short tale follows all the ground rules as Tracy, adopted boy side-kick Junior, special agent Jim Trailer and the boys on the Beat track down the killer of a notorious gambler.

The best case of the 1940s – and for many the best ever – was ‘The Brow’ (22nd May – 26th September, 1944) in which the team must track down a ruthless and brilliant Nazi spy. As my own personal favourite, I’m doing you all the favour of saying no more about this compelling, breathtaking yarn, and you’ll thank me for it, but I will say that this is a complete reprinting, as others have been edited for violence and one edition simply left out every Sunday instalment – which is my own definition of policed brutality.

By the 1950s Gould was at his creative peak. ‘Crewy Lou’ (22nd April – 4th November, 1951) and ‘Model’ (23rd January – 27th March, 1952) are perfect examples of the range of his abilities. The first is an epic of minor crimes and criminals escalating into major menaces whilst the latter is another short shocker with the conservative Gould showing that social ills could still move him to action in a tale of juvenile delinquency as Junior grows into a teenager and experiences his first love affair…

As with many creators in it for the long haul the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where the popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the shift towards science fiction themes (Tracy moved into space and the alien character Moon Maid was introduced) as any old-fashioned attitudes.

In the era when strip proportions had begun to diminish as papers put advertising space above feature clarity, his artwork had attained dizzying levels of creativity: mesmerising, nigh-abstract concoctions of black-&-white that grabbed the eye no matter what size editors printed it. ‘Spots’ (3rd August – 30th November) 1960 comes from just before the worst excesses, but still displays the artist’s stark, chiaroscurist mastery in a terse thriller that shows the fundamental secret of Tracy’s success and longevity – Hot Pursuit wedded to Grim Irony.

The 1970s are represented by ‘Big Boy’s Open Contract’ (12th June – 30th December 1978) by Max Allen Collins & Rick Fletcher. Although he retired in 1977, Gould still consulted with the new creative team, and this third outing for the new guys saw the long-awaited return of Big Boy, a thinly disguised Capone analogue Tracy had sent to prison at the very start of his career, and whose last try for revenge tragically cost the hero a loved one and forever changed the strip.

Representing the 1980s, the final tale is ‘The Man of a Million Faces’ (October 5th 1987 – April 10th 1988) by Collins & Dick Locher. Like Fletcher, this illustrator was an art assistant to Gould who took up the master’s mantle.

Despite the simply unimaginable variety of crimes and criminals Tracy has brought to book, this sneaky story of a bank robber and his perfect gimmick proves that sometimes the back to basics approach leads to the best results.

Dick Tracy is a milestone strip that has influenced all popular fiction, not simply comics. Baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips and comics such as Batman, but his studied use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crime-fighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries decades before shows such as such as CSI and The Coroner made the disciplines everyday coinage.

This is a fantastically readable strip and this chronological primer is a wonderful way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough-love, Hard Justice world.
© 1990 Tribune Media Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Skeleton Key: the Graphic Novel – an Alex Rider Adventure


By Anthony Horowitz, adapted by Antony Johnston, Kanako & Yuzuru Takasaki (Walker Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4063-1345-2

If America is the spiritual home of the superhero, Britain is Great because of spies and detectives. Our popular literary heritage is littered with cunning sleuths and stealthy investigators from Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake, Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey to the Scarlet Pimpernel, George Smiley and Harry Palmer.  And Bond; James Bond

In 2000 Anthony Horowitz produced Stormbreaker, the first of eleven (with a TV series in the offing and Book 12 due in 2019) rip-snorting teen novels featuring 14 year old orphan Alex Rider: a smart, fit, sports-mad lad like any other, who suddenly discovers that his guardian Uncle Ian has also died. Moreover the deceased gentleman was apparently a spy of some distinction and had been surreptitiously teaching the lad all the skills, techniques and disciplines needed to become a secret agent…

Soon MI6 are knocking on his door…

As well as a major motion picture and video game, the books (five so far) have also been adapted to the comics medium; their easy blend of action, youthful rebellion and overwhelmingly comfortable 007-style pastiche winning many fans in the traditionally parlous older-boys book market. They’re really rather good…

Alex is a highly effective but reluctant agent, preferring the normal life of his boarding school to the clandestine machinations of espionage. However his occasional paymasters at MI6 are always looking for ways to exploit his obvious talents. A seemingly innocent offer to work as a ball-boy at the Wimbledon Tennis tournament leads to him foiling a huge gambling scam by a Chinese Triad.

Unfortunately this makes him a target for Triad vengeance, so his “boss” Mr. Crawford suggests a little trip to Cuba until the heat dies down.

Roll Credits…

Alex soon discovers he has been “borrowed” by the CIA to add camouflage to a reconnaissance mission involving Alexei Sarov, an old Stalinist Soviet general who is up to something particularly nasty with stolen atomic weapons from his isolated fortress on the Cayo Esqueleto or “Skeleton Key”.

Tasked with finding out what the old soldier is planning, the American agents at first make him less than welcome, resenting his presence and not trusting a “mere kid”, but I’m sure they changed their minds around about the moment when they got murdered…

Now the only operative in the game, Alex is soon captured by Sarov who proves to be an unbeatable opponent. Moreover, he has a most unique fate planned for the boy after his plans for global annihilation are achieved: he wants to adopt him…

This is an immensely entertaining romp, hitting all the thrill-buttons for an ideal Bank Holiday blockbluster, even though it’s told – and very convincingly – from the viewpoint of an uncertain boy rather than a suave, sophisticated adult. The adaptation is sharp and witty, capturing the insecurities and verve of the young hero perfectly whilst the art by sisters Kanako & Yuzuru Takasaki is in a full-colour, computer-rendered manga style that might not please everybody but does work exceedingly well in conveying the softer moments as well as the spectacular action set-pieces.

Be warned, however, even though this is a kid’s book there is a substantial amount of fighting and a large body count, whilst the violence is not at all cartoony in context. If you intend sharing the book with younger children, read it yourself first.

These books and their comic counterparts are a fine addition to our fiction tradition. Alex Rider will return… why don’t you join him?

Text and illustrations © 2009 Walker Books Ltd. Based on the original novel Skeleton Key © 2002 Anthony Horowitz. All rights reserved.

Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives volume 1


By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-488-7

Thanks to modern technology and diligent research by dedicated fans, there is a sublime superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this initial chronicle (available in both print and digital formats) revisiting the incredible gifts and achievements of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

The star of this collection was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was quite possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, but nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

This chain of events began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, tall-tale-telling breed locked in a hard-to-win war against slow self-destruction. All this and more is far better imparted in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell. It covers the development of the medium in ‘The Golden Age of Comics’, the history of ‘Bill Everett the Man’ and how they came together in ‘Centaur + Funnies Inc. = Marvel Comics #1’.

Th essay also includes an astounding treasure trove of found images and original art including samples from 1940s Sub-Mariner, 1960s Daredevil and 1970s Black Widow amongst many others.

Accompanied by the covers – that’s the case for most of the titles that follow: Everett was fast and slick and knew how to catch a punter’s eye – for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 1 #1, 2, 3a, 3b and volume 2 #2 (August 1938 – February 1939, Centaur) are a quartet of rousing but muddled interstellar exploits starring sci fi troubleshooter Skyrocket Steele.

These are followed by a brace of anarchic outer space shenanigans starring futuristic wild boy Dirk the Demon from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 1 #3a and vol. 2 #3 (November 1938 and March 1939 respectively).

The undisputed star and big draw at Centaur was always Amazing-Man: a Tibetan mystic-trained orphan, adventurer and do-gooder named John Aman. After years of dangerous, painful study the young man was despatched back to civilisation to do good (for a relative given value of “good”)…

Aman stole the show in the monthly Amazing Mystery Comics #5-8 (spanning September to December 1939) as seen in the four breakneck thrillers reprinted here: ‘Origin of Amazing-Man’; an untitled sequel episode with the champion saving a lady rancher from sadistic criminals; ‘Amazing-Man Loose’ (after being framed for various crimes) and a concluding instalment wherein the nomadic hero abandons his quest to capture his evil arch rival ‘The Great Question’ and instead heads for recently invaded France to battle the scourge of Nazism…

As previously stated, Everett was passionately wedded to western themes and for Novelty Press’ Target Comics devised an Arizona-set rootin’ tootin’ cowboy crusader dubbed Bull’s-Eye Bill. Taken from issues #1 and 2 (February and March 1940), ‘On the trail of Travis Trent’ and ‘The Escape of Travis Trent’ find our wholesome but hard-bitten cowpoke battling the meanest and most determined owlhoot in the territory.

Accompanying the strips is an Everett-illustrated prose piece attributed to “Gray Brown” entitled ‘Bullseye Bill Gets his Moniker’.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas, Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action and immensely popular, edgy heroes. That’s why Eastern Comics commissioned him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for their new bimonthly anthology Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics.

Here then (spanning issues #1-5; August 1940 to March 1941), are five spectacular, eerily offbeat exploits, encompassing ‘The Origin of Hydroman’ and covering his patriotic mission to make America safe from subversion from “oriental invaders”, German saboteurs and assorted ne’er-do-wells. after which a Polar Paladin rears his frozen head.

Sub-Zero Man debuted in Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 (July 1940): a Venusian scientist stranded on Earth who, through myriad bizarre circumstances, becomes a chilly champion of justice. Everett is only credited with the episode ‘The Power of Professor X’ (from vol. 1 #5, October 1940) but also included here are the cover of vol. 1 #4 and spot illos for the prose stories ‘Sub-Zero’s Adventures on Earth’ and ‘Frozen Ice’ (from Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 and vol. 2 #3).

The Conqueror was another quickly forsaken Everett creation: a Red, White & Blue patriotic costumed champion debuting in Victory Comics #1 August 1941. Daniel Lyons almost died in a plane crash but was saved by cosmic ray bombardment which granted him astounding mental and physical powers in ‘The Coming of the Conqueror’.

He promptly moved to Europe to “rid the world of Adolf Hitler!” and Everett’s only other contribution was the cover of issue #2 (September 1941).

Accompanied by a page of the original artwork from Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #12 (May 1941), The Music Master details how dying violinist John Wallace is saved by mystic musical means and becomes a sonic-powered superman righting injustices and crushing evil…

Rounding out this cavalcade of forgotten wonders are a selection of covers, spot illustrations and yarns which can only be described as Miscellaneous (1938-1942). These consist of the cover to the 1938 Uncle Joe’s Funnies #1; procedural crime thriller ‘The C-20 Mystery’ from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 2 #7 (June 1939) and ‘The Story of the Red Cross’ from True Comics #2 (June 1938).

The cover for Dickie Dare #1 (1941) is followed by a range of potent illustrative images from text tales beginning with three pages for ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ (Funny Pages vol. 2 #11; November 1940), a potent pic for ‘Birth of a Robot Part 2’ from Target Comics vol. 1 #6 (July 1940), two pages from ‘Death in a Box’ courtesy of Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #5 (March 1941) and two from ‘Pirate’s Oil’ in Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #13 (July 1942), before the unpublished, unfinished 1940 covers for Challenge Comics #1 and Whirlwind Comics #1 bring the nostalgia to a close.

Although telling, even revelatory and hinting at a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them. You should really invite yourself onto that list…
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2011 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Trailers


By Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-445-X (HC)                   978-1-56163-445-3 (PB)

Josh Clayton is a good kid, pretty much. Sure, he lives in a typical American trailer park, and yes, his mother’s a bit of a tramp, but Josh has never been in any kind of real trouble…

Back from school, Josh is stuck tending to his baby brother again when Ma gets into another screaming match with her drug-dealer boyfriend. This time it doesn’t play out as usual though, and she kills him. When she comes out of the bedroom and tells Josh that he’s got to get rid of the body before his other brother and sister return, his life changes forever.

It’s hard enough being a sensitive teenager in America these days, especially if you’re dirt-poor and got no car. High School is hell and life generally sucks.

If you add to that the fact that the body just won’t stay buried, it all adds up to a pretty miserable time for Josh.

So, when pretty Michele inexplicably makes a play for him, the pressure and confusion soon reach fever pitch. And still Josh’s inevitable slide into a life just like his crappy mother’s seems to haunt him, sucking him further and further down.

Can Josh keep his family together, get the girl, survive school and ever sleep without screaming? Can he break out of this grim, dark spiral, or is he fore-doomed and fore-damned?

The answer makes for a superb slice of modern noir fiction that should tickle the palate of all those “mature” comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter. Neece and Collins-Rousseau (employed at the faculty of Sequential Art, Savannah College of Art & Design), have created an authentic story of realistic young people in extraordinary need. This is the kind of book (available in hardback soft cover and digital formats) that fans need to show civilians who still don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put “Born to Run” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about.
© 2005 Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau. All Rights Reserved.